Temptation stories are fun because they offer us a chance to indulge in a fantasy—what would it be like to live in a fancy hotel? To write stories that come true? To get that dream job through sheer force of will?—right before bringing everything back down to Earth. You need both steps, the rise and fall, to make it work; even movies about meteoric rises to fame need to wallow in drug abuse and hedonism in order to get to a well-earned happy ending. I’m not sure anyone in 666 Park Avenue is going to be getting a happy ending, but the show has been doing its best to show us both sides of the coin with every episode so far. Henry and Jane keep getting more and more involved with the Dorans and their alluring world of endless privilege, Brian keeps struggling against the temptation of cheating on his hot wife with her hot assistant (I guess a blonde would be a change of pace, or something), and there’s the soul of the week, this time in the form of an ambitious obituary writer who’s willing to do anything to get out of her current dead-end gig. All of them are offered a chance at something better, or at least something different. Some take the chance, while others try and resist, but the real lesson to draw so far is that this show is much better at handling the temptation part of the story than it is at giving us the payment.
First off, let’s look at Annie, the reporter. Hers is the only (apparently) self-contained plot line the episode, and while the idea is clever enough, it feels oddly out of place with the rest of the hour, as though the channel kept switching between a show about a group of sexy young people losing their souls, to a horror anthology in which every irony is painfully obvious, and every line a character says that could possibly come back to haunt them does. Annie hates writing obits, so Gavin encourages her to stretch her mind a little. She responds by inflating a nobody’s obituary (“Oscar Diebold,” ha-ha) with a lot of made up facts about espionage, diplomacy, and a creepy Russian assassin named Kandinsky. Her fiction becomes reality, somehow (magic), and this inspires Annie to start making more changes, up to and including editing her mother’s obituary to include a line about the dead lady being a beloved and successful children’s author.
This is all very silly, and while the brutality of the ending—Kandinsky shows up at Annie’s apartment and apparently tortures her to death—gives it some bite, it’s still a whole lot of nothing. Annie is barely a character (even Danielle from last week had a little more to her), and while I like the idea of Gavin messing about with various one-off characters, they need to put a little more effort into it. It stretches plausibility; Annie’s decision to make up an elaborate, showy bit of reporting fiction comes almost out of nowhere, and the irony of her being killed by the monster she created is hollow when you consider how out of nowhere the whole thing is. We see her make up two different bits of fiction which become real, and one of them kills her. Beyond the visceral unpleasantness of her fate, there isn’t enough time to care about what happens to her, and there’s no clear sense of how this fits into Gavin’s plans. He seems to offer temptation without explicitly giving out the rules, and while that could work (who’s going to fall for a guy who says, “Give me your soul, and I’ll give you what you want”?), right now, it adds to the grafted-on feel of the soul of the week stories.
As for the rest, Henry’s induction to the halls of government continues on apace, and this was fun to watch; familiar, sure, but fun nonetheless. Gavin pushes him to go on the attack for the job he wants, Henry appears to succeed, and we learn later Gavin has a relationship with the councilman who hired him. So far, so good, but then it gets weird when the councilman refuses to accept Gavin’s offer for the Greenpoint project, so Gavin tosses him down an empty elevator shaft, and tells Henry he needs to reconsider his options, and maybe think about making his own run for city council. Which is all well and good, and I appreciate Gavin doing something that immediate and unexpected, but it’s hard to know how all of this will fit into his plans. Are we supposed to conclude from this that Gavin is so powerful he can kill without reservation? That’s cool, and a good villain needs to be willing to get his hands dirty, but the show hasn’t really set down the rules yet, which means it’s hard to draw any conclusions from what just happened. Most of the episode has Henry and Gavin in a familiar, Devil’s Advocate style framework, and that’s still basically the case, but it’s just a little too ill-defined. In order for all the weird stuff to register, there needs to be a clearly defined world, and that hasn’t really happened yet.
Meanwhile, Brian continues to resist the advances of the devious, coitus-interrupting Alexis, and this is still a plotline without any weight at all. Either have him start cheating so we can move onto the next phase, or have him, I dunno, murder Alexis in desperation so we can move on to that. Or else have Gavin put some more pressure on him about that play. (Did you know Brian had a play on Broadway once? “A while ago,” he says. When he was 10, apparently.) Otherwise, there’s no drama here at all. The only highlight is that Henry catches a glimpse of Alexis himself, which means that he has a vague idea of what’s going on; it’s good to feel like these things aren’t happening in a vacuum, although I still wish this story would die.
Oh, and Jane’s still seeing creepy things, like a little girl in the basement and a suitcase with a bell she brings up from the secret room with all the cobwebs and scary things. People often behave idiotically in horror films and shows, and this is no exception; we know Jane is curious about the Drake’s history, but there’s a difference between “curious,” and “I keep getting visions, oh why not lug this scary, musty luggage up because it has a bell that keeps ringing.” Her scenes with Olivia worked well enough; Olivia and Gavin’s daughter committed suicide 10 years ago (Gavin doesn’t seem to know), and Olivia burned the suicide note at the end, allowing us to see the words “He’s evil” on it before the flames engulf them. Because there was a lot of doubt about that.
This show’s pilot had me interested because it had some decent ideas, and because I really love the idea of Terry O’Quinn as a (kind of) devil. Still do. But whatever goodwill it earned is fading fast. It’s not that every element of “The Dead Don’t Stay Dead” is unmitigatedly terrible. It’s that no one involved seems to have worked out how to create tension and build characters on an episodic TV series. There are effective moments interspersed throughout, but the longer this goes on, the less effective those moments become, especially once you realize they don’t add up to anything.
- “Honestly, Gavin, I would do anything to get off the obituary desk.” -Annie (Let this be a warning, kids; never ever say anything that could be re-interpreted as a willingness to be brutally murdered for a career boost.)
- Doesn’t the whole Annie plot seem like something originally written in the mid-80s? Annie appears completely oblivious to how difficult, if not impossible, it is these days to make it as a full-time journalist.
- The “nobody gets what Jane’s going on about” thread is going to get very old, very fast.
- Alexis getting embarrassed when she realizes Henry’s watching her do her window striptease was pretty funny.